I’ll never forget the first time I heard a college girlfriend say she was thinking of breaking up with her serious boyfriend because “he’s just not a spiritual leader.” Someone else taking part in that lunchroom conversation wisely asked, “What do you mean by spiritual leadership?”
It’s a question that has popped up again and again in the years since. In evangelical circles, it’s mighty important for the man to be the spiritual leader in every romantic relationship, but nobody seems to know exactly what that means.
I think Marlena Graves has some helpful insights here, and I want to add a few thoughts of my own:
Don’t confuse spiritual leadership with spiritual communication.
Like Graves, I’ve heard so many women say “spiritual leadership” when what they really mean is that the man initiates prayer and devotions for the couple. That’s an awfully narrow definition. If that’s what we mean, it’s probably more accurate to say “spiritual communication.” Don’t get me wrong: It is absolutely fine to desire tandem spiritual growth and intimate spiritual conversation, especially if you’re headed for marriage. But that is a different thing from spiritual leadership, and it makes me sad to see good men getting dinged when those things don’t come naturally for them.
Spiritual communication can be learned, should be learned, and — in most cases — takes some time and effort to learn. But it’s a skill, not a moral or character issue. When we make that distinction, it’s easier to give each other grace and learn together.
Don’t have a double standard when it comes to “leadership” and “spiritual leadership.”
Where in the world did we get the idea that spiritual leadership means that the man needs to initiate everything and the woman needs to initiate nothing at all? In any other realm, that definition of leadership would not stand.
Leadership looks very different depending on who is leading and who is being led. It’s an art for a leader to draw out the best in each follower and maximize the use of each person’s gifts. And just because one person in the relationship is a leader, that doesn’t mean the other person can’t be. (In fact, the best leaders often surround themselves with others who are gifted in their own areas of weakness!) In my experience, this is no less true in a romantic relationship.
Women, think of the best leaders you have ever followed. My guess is you will not list anyone who took total control and allowed you to do nothing. Instead, you’ll probably think of leaders — men and women — who recognized, celebrated and allowed you to use your gifts. Thinking back over great leadership experiences in the past can give you an idea of what good leadership looks like in your life, and from there, it’s not too hard to see how those ideas apply to spiritual leadership in a romantic relationship.
How do you define spiritual leadership? What does it mean for someone to lead you well?